by Carole Losee © 2005-2020


ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER ONE

THE BIRTH OF RAMA

 

The gods had met together in the high courts of heaven, for they were troubled. They had a powerful enemy, Rávana, king of the demons, who roamed at will over the three worlds, sometimes fighting and defeating the gods themselves, disturbing the air, the earth and the waters, and scattering the sacrifices of the holy sages who dwelt in the forests. Yet Brahma, the creator of the worlds, the chief of the gods, had granted him the boon that no god or demon or spirit could ever kill him, and therefore no one could put an end to his evil deeds.

It had come about in this way. Rávana had an older brother whom he hated because his brother had been favored by the gods and possessed great wealth and the beautiful kingdom of Lanka, which lay upon an island in the southern ocean. Therefore Rávana began to control his heart and to conquer his mind and his body, so that the gods would be pleased and grant him the power to defeat his brother. He went to the forest and sat for years in meditation, eating at first the fruit that fell from the trees within his reach, then eating only the dry leaves that fell, and finally living on air alone. In summer he sat between five fires: the sun above him and four that he kindled on each side of him; in winter and during the rainy season he sat without shelter, his whole being concentrated upon this inner discipline. So wise men do, to purify their hearts and free their souls of sin, but Rávana's purpose was evil.

Nonetheless, Brahma the creator, seeing him so resolute and so thin, appeared to him and said, "I am pleased with you, my child. Cease your discipline and ask of me any boon that you desire, except that you may live forever, for that I may not grant."

And Rávana replied, "Let me never be slain by any god or demon, spirit or serpent, O lord of creation!"

"You need have no fear of any of those whom you have named," said Brahma. "Only man shall be able to kill you."

And Rávana laughed, for he scorned man. Then he attacked his older brother and drove him from his kingdom, he took over the splendid city of Lanka, which was built by the divine architect on the summit of a three-peaked mountain that rose near the island's shore. From there he ruled over all the demons and went forth in his arrogance and did much mischief on earth and in the heavens. His heart was wicked and he rejoiced in his power; he destroyed the pleasure gardens of the gods, carried off nymphs and celestial dancers to Lanka, and his demons raged through the forests, disturbing the sacrifices of the blessed hermits, on whose offerings the gods themselves depended. These demons were the more feared because they devoured men and drank their blood. He descended even into the realm of death and fought against its ruler, Yama; but neither fighter could prevail since Yama was an immortal and Rávana had been given the boon by Brahma. He went, too, to the bottom of the sea to defy the lord of all the waters and laid waste much of that realm and slew its defenders; but the king was not there and Rávana returned, with shouts of triumph.

At last many of the gods, with the nymphs and spirits of air and water, went to Brahma and besought him, saying, "O god of gods, the demon Rávana is always troubling us and we are helpless before him because of the boon you have granted him. We are terrified by him, for he controls even the sun, the winds, and the seas. Only you can help us."

The lord of the worlds pondered for a while and then said, "I have thought of a plan whereby this evil tyrant may be destroyed. Only man can kill him; therefore he must be destroyed by a man. But that man must have the power of a god."

At this moment the lord Vishnu came among them, the preserver and guardian of the three worlds, equal in power to Brahma, the creator. He rode on his great eagle who is king of all the birds; he was clad in a gleaming yellow robe, and in three of his four hands he held his conch shell, his mace, and his flaming discus. Brahma told him of the gods' distress and their only hope of deliverance. The lesser deities worshiped him with the palms of their hands joined together, and they implored him, "O guardian of all creatures, we beg you to be born of man in order to destroy Rávana, the scourge of earth and heaven."

"Fear no more!" answered Vishnu. "Be at peace, for I shall slay Rávana with his friends and kinsmen and all his army. But where shall I take birth as man?"

All who heard him rejoiced, and the God of Fire, Agni, said to him, "The good and wise king of Koshala is even now preparing a sacrifice in order to obtain a son. Be born, O conqueror of foes, as sons to his three wives and free us from our fears."

The lord Vishnu graciously agreed, and then Brahma spoke again to the assembled gods and to the nymphs and spirits of the forest and the waters and the air to whom Rávana had done great harm. "Since the blessed Vishnu is willing to be born of man for your sakes, you must help him by begetting great sons among the monkeys of the southern forest. Anyone who attacks Rávana in his stronghold of Lanka must pass that way and will need the help of those who know the forest best. Be born as monkeys, skilled in magic, swift as the wind, able to change their shape at will as demons do, to cleave rocks and mountains and to fly in the air like eagles."

Thus the prayers of the gods were answered.

Agni, the lord of fire, had spoken truly, for in the beautiful city of Ayodhya the king of Koshala was preparing a great sacrifice.

Now Koshala was a prosperous and happy kingdom in the northern part of that great country that is called India today. Its capital city was built on the bank of a river that flows into the sacred Ganges; it was called Ayodhya, which means "not to be fought against." Its walls were strong and its moat deep; its gates were arched like thunderclouds and it was protected by warriors who never fled from a foe. Within the walls were spacious houses and lovely gardens, pools of clear water, and blossoming trees, wide streets that were daily sprinkled with water and strewn with flowers. There were ample stables for the war elephants and for those on which the king and his friends often rode; also for the many horses that the warriors rode or yoked to their chariots, and houses for those chariots and for all the gear of war.

Many learned men and priests lived there who studied the holy books, the Vedas, and who were able to perform the rites and sacrifices. Poets and musicians, actors and dancers, made the city beautiful and gay. The markets and shops were filled with every sort of ware made by skilled craftsmen: weavers and goldsmiths, jewelers and potters, carpenters and carvers; workers in glass and ivory, perfumers, incense makers, and those who made fans of peacock feathers. The farmers outside the walls raised plenty of grain and the cattle were round and sleek; for the rains were abundant and dams were built in the right places to hold the precious water during the dry season.

The king cherished all the four castes: the Brahmans who were the priests and counselors and teachers; the Kshatrias who were the rulers and the warriors; the Vaisyas who were merchants, traders, and farmers; and the Shudras who were the servants of all. Each man worked happily at his own trade and prospered. There was no poverty or thievery; every family had a pleasant house and garden; every man and woman wore earrings and a necklace; none went hungry and no son died before his father.

The kingdom was a happy one because its ruler was wise. Men follow the example of their king; if they are dealt with justly, they in turn are just. In his handsome palace, the king of Koshala ruled as Indra does in heaven. He had studied the Vedas; he loved the truth and never broke his word; he was a great warrior, but was a friend to all and loved by his people. His high priest and teacher was a great sage, one of the wisest in the world, and he chose able and honest ministers. Three loving and lovely queens dwelt in the inner realm of his palace. He had only one sorrow: he had no son to succeed him and to carry on the line of his ancestors.

Therefore at this time he said to his high priest, "I pray you, O holy one, to prepare the sacrifice that will bring me a son, and to perform it according to the sacred traditions set forth in the Vedas."

"So be it!" answered the priest; and he summoned Brahmans and architects, workmen, musicians, and dancers. "Measure off a level piece of land on the north bank of the river and raise the sacrificial pavilion," he said to the builders. "Then build all around it handsome dwellings for those kings and Brahmans and warriors who will be invited to the ceremony. Fill these houses with every comfort and with food for men and horses and elephants. Let all be done with good will and courtesy, and let no one suffer during this holy time so that the purpose of the king's sacrifice may be accomplished."

Messengers were sent to all the neighboring kings, who came with their priests and their warriors and were made welcome. The whole city was dressed with flags and garlands of flowers, and every citizen wore his finest robe and ornaments. The streets were sprinkled with perfume, and the sound of drums and music never ceased. Gifts of food and apparel, jewels and gold were given freely to all the castes.

When all was ready the sacrifice was held; the sacred fire was lighted and each day the offerings and libations were presented without a fault by Brahmans well versed in the Vedas, directed by the high priest.

On the last day there was a sound like the throbbing of a great drum, and out of the sacred fire appeared a majestic figure clad in a red robe and flashing jewels. He held in his hand a golden vessel with a silver cover, and he spoke to the king in a voice as deep as thunder: "Receive the fruit of your sacrifice, O King! The celestial food in this dish has been prepared by the gods and will give you your heart's desire. Let your queens partake of it and they will bear your sons."

The king took the golden vessel and raised it to his forehead, worshiping the god, who forthwith vanished from his sight. Then, rejoicing as a penniless man who has just received a fortune, he entered the inner apartments of his palace. He went to the first and most honored of his queens and gave her half of the heavenly food; then he divided the rest of it in two equal parts and gave one to each of the other queens, and all of them consumed it with great joy.

In the spring when all the favorable planets were alight, the queens brought forth their sons. The firstborn was the child of that mother who had eaten half of the celestial food, and great was the rejoicing at his birth. A few days later a second son was born, and then the third queen gave birth to twin boys, and the king's joy was complete. The city and indeed the whole kingdom, as the news spread, was one great festival. Poets and minstrels sang the praise of father and sons; dancers and acrobats entertained the people, and the streets resounded with music and laughter. The eldest boy was named Rama, the "delight" of his parents and the world; the second was Bhárata, the "upholder" of the kingdom; and the twins were Lákshmana, the "fortunate," and Shátrughna, "conqueror of foes."

The boys were all strong and handsome. Rama and Bhárata were dark-skinned as storm clouds, the twins fairer; all had black, curling hair and eyes as large as lotus leaves, dark and bright. They learned all the branches of knowledge under the wisest of their father's counselors; the most skillful of his warriors taught them the use of every weapon, for they belonged to the Kshatria caste who are the protectors and rulers of men and must ever be ready for war. They became excellent riders and were skillful in driving the chariot; they learned to use the bow, the sword, and the mace. They practiced, as they grew older, in the hunt and in games together and with their friends, and the citizens loved to watch the young princes as they raced with gay voices and laughter on the land outside the walls or competed in archery, each arrow marked with its owner's name.

The brothers were devoted to one another and were almost always together; but if they separated or took sides in a game, Lákshmana always went with Rama and Shátrughna with Bhárata. As they rode through the city or went hither and yon at their father's behest, they were seen thus in pairs; in each pair, one was dark and one fair. Among them Rama was always the leader, because he was the eldest and also because he was the strongest and the wisest; for he possessed half of the nature of Vishnu, while the others had a lesser portion. He was skilled in all the arts of peace and war, especially in archery, for no one could surpass him in the use of the bow.

One day, when the boys were about fifteen years old, the king was seated in his court among his counselors when the porter of the city gate was admitted to his presence. A great sage, he said, stood at the gate; he had given his name to the porter and desired to see the king. When the king heard the name he rose at once and with his high priest went on foot to welcome the illustrious visitor who was, indeed, one of the holiest of wise men. The king knelt before him and took the dust from his feet, for a man who left the world and went into the woods to purify his heart and seek the truth was honored far more than those who dwelt in palaces. Then the sage was taken to the palace where his feet were washed and milk and rice and honey offered to him for refreshment.

After the usual courteous questions were asked and answered, the king said, "O sinless one, your coming is a joy and blessing to me, like rain falling on parched earth. Be pleased to tell me why you have come and what is your will. I will do anything you ask of me."

"I have come a long way from my forest hermitage, great King, to ask a favor of you," answered his guest. "When I perform a sacrifice in that place, after assembling all the necessary offerings, after fulfilling every rite for several days, just when the sacrifice has reached its height, a great demon, with a host of followers, comes rushing down and scatters the offerings and defiles the altar. They are sent by Rávana, the king of all demons, who dwells in Lanka and sends his minions forth to trouble us. I may not destroy or even curse them, because at the time of sacrifice no violence may be done and no anger felt.

"Therefore, O King, lend me your son Rama to destroy those demons. Only he can do it, and because of their sins they will not be able to stand against him. Do not let a father's love prevent you; give me your dear son for the space of ten days, so that I may complete my sacrifice."

The king's heart was stricken by these words, and he lay back, trembling, upon his throne. When he could speak, he answered the sage. "O holy one, my Rama is but fifteen years old and has no experience of war. How can he slay demons who are so powerful and wicked? The gods themselves cannot destroy Rávana; how can I send my son to contend with his followers? I have a great army and seasoned warriors whom I myself will lead against your foes, but I will not let this young child go; O blessed one, I cannot give my son!"

The sage was enraged by these words: he rose and his flashing eyes were terrible to behold, for the anger of a saint is hard to bear. "Remember, O King, that you were born of a noble house!" he said. "How can you bear to break your word? You said that you would do anything that I asked of you. If this is your decision, I shall take my leave and you may stay here with your sons and your army, O breaker of promises!"

The palace trembled under his wrath, but the high priest of the king, that holy one who was his spiritual teacher, spoke soothing words to the monarch: "After following the path of virtue all your life, do not abandon it now and break your word, O lord of men. He who breaks his word destroys his honor. You need not fear to send your son; no harm can come to him in the presence of this wise one who before he retired to the forest was a mighty king. He has no equal in knowledge and discipline; all things in the past, present, and future are known to him. He has mastered all weapons, human and divine, and could slay the demons in the wink of an eye if he had not taken up the holy life. It will be for Rama's own good to go with him.

The king accepted this wise counsel and sent for Rama, who came with Lákshmana following him. Their father embraced them both and gave them into the care of the sage. Then they girded on their swords, slung their quivers on their shoulders, and taking their bows in their hands, followed the sage out of the city, along the bank of the river.

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 3-14. 


BACK          SITE CONTENTS          THE RAMAYANA CONTENTS          NEXT